January 1st, 2011
Here is my cautionary tale and reminder that the freelance game should be fully half about finding the next project, promoting our services, and absolutely not counting chickens before they hatch.
Yes, I am bummed. But I also feel exhilaration at just how in charge of my book design practice I am, while at the same time admitting it is not all about me. Despite how I enjoy playing that it is.
As the closing days of 2010 unfolded, after I thought all activity would finally stop for the year with the holidays arriving—as it always has in the past—I was contacted by five potential new clients about book design and layout, and straight layout, projects. Last year, strange year that it was with both zigs and zags in it when I expected opposites, closed in a way that can happen to all of us who freelance and reminded me that looking ahead must always include promoting ourselves.
Admittedly, looking back, it seems to have fit. As I wrote in my wrap-up of 2010, it was unexpectedly my best year ever, both in terms of earning and the creative energy that successfully surged in me last year. Coming on the heels of a down year, the U.S. economy in tough straits, knowing that traditional publishers were very much tightening their belts, I was not prepared for the burst of really fine self-published work that would propel my year.
At least two of the potential new clients who contacted me spoke of big, big projects, one about 1,800 pages and the other well over a thousand pages, too. Serious money would have been involved. Well before the stroke of midnight, however, the carriage turned back into a pumpkin and I was left thinking about how 2010 went out every bit as unexpectedly as it came in.
First I heard from the academic press. They were interesting and, in retrospect, confuse me a little. Their initial contact presented the price they intended to pay. They didn’t need to raise that number so soon, I thought. But it was a satisfactory number and I told them I would be willing to fully do the project to the other specification mentioned, including any timetable. A second or third email informed me that, well, they first had to field other bids before giving me an answer.
Now, I am fine with competitive bidding and I understand businesses have no obligation to respond instantly. But the sudden change from all the firm details presented puzzled me and reminded me: Don’t expect potential clients to keep the same steady tone once you agree with them, at least while negotiating money. That is their right; but to be shocked by it when it happens, more importantly, is pointless.
So they took a lower bid. Parenthetically, I should say that, again, though competition is fine, downward competition on rates alarms me. I blame that at least partially on the crowdsourcing mentality that seems to pervade the thinking of the new generation of designers. Whether they have been sold the idea or it simply suits their sense that all spontaneity and flexibility in the marketplace is good and example of “power to the people,” I do not know. But when they cannot earn their livings on the skills they picked up in school at so much expense, all the contests, spec work, and crowdsourcing will not seem so empowering.
The second potential client emailed soon after. They would not need my services, nor any other book designer/page composition artist, because the printer they spoke to made it clear they could simply distill PDFs from the Microsoft Word textfiles. If such a solution satisfied them, I did not have it in me to go sour grapes and give my “hammer a nail with the flat side of a wrench” rant one more time. It was clear to me that professional typography was not as important as getting their project done at a modest price. And the printer cared only about locking up their end of the job.
The third turndown was the one that made me laugh. From a New York City concern, they elected to go with a designer on the other side of the country. People familiar with me know how gee whiz I am about the small, 24/7 world we are now, thanks to the Internet, email, and all the rest. More than once I have scratched my head publicly when potential clients expressed a preference for working with a designer in their town. So I certainly won’t whine about someone who chose not to go local. But the irony … well, just is.
The moral of the story, if there really is one, is that the economy makes the freelancer’s security unpredictable. So we should always be looking for the next paying project.